Because I’ve reached the end of Netflix and entertainment is in short supply, I found myself watching the Prince of Wales exhort his unemployed countrymates to get off the sofa, put down their crisp packets and “pick for Britain.” Not just any old layabouts need apply, said the Prince, filmed against a bucolic backdrop while wearing a suit likely hand-tailored on Jermyn Street. “The phrase I’ve often heard is ‘pickers who are stickers.’ Now I do not doubt the work will be unglamorous and at times challenging … but you will be making a vital contribution to the national effort.”
For the heroic work of replacing migrant European workers to keep their country’s Pimm’s cups full of strawberries, the “pick for Britain” workers would be paid minimum wage ($17 an hour) for arduous seasonal work, or as the Prince likes to call it, “hard graft.” The fact that it is hard graft, and underpaid, and largely thankless, is the reason so many migrant workers were shipped into Britain (as they are into Canada and the United States) to pick produce and drive tractors every year. Until the coronavirus upended the wheelbarrow.
I don’t expect Charles will be out there himself picking the nation’s courgettes, just as I don’t expect that Jeff Bezos spends his days stuffing moisturizer into boxes at one of Amazon’s “fulfilment centres,” despite a cheery video the company released last month showing its founder and CEO touring warehouses to thank workers.
Wait, make that “hero workers,” the patronizing label given to essential workers who literally put their bodies at risk so that the bulk of people can stay home receiving packages, eating meat and getting their prescriptions filled. Except Amazon’s workers were heroes until they weren’t: This month the company cut the puny $2/hour bonus that they’d been paying during the first part of the COVID-19 crisis. To rub salt into the wound – maybe nice Himalayan salt, available for order online – Amazon replaced the bonus with a T-shirt that says, “Thanks to you, together we’ll deliver.”
It would be funny if this were a Terry Gilliam movie and not, you know, a global health and economic crisis. Amazon’s workers have been fired for complaining about conditions in their warehouses, which they say have not adequately been fitted with safety provisions against the virus. (There have been outbreaks at Amazon centres, including in Canada, and the company has said it plans to spend US$4-billion on its coronavirus response, including “higher hourly wages.”)
It’s not just Amazon. Other corporations have cut their so-called “hero workers” pay raises, and none have made the raises permanent, which would be the real barometer for measuring value. Because who is actually valued in this crisis? We know who isn’t. Statistics in Britain show that the people who are at highest danger of dying of COVID-19 are security guards, care workers, taxi drivers and construction workers. In Canada, the low-wage, migrant-dominated fields such as meatpacking plants are the single biggest concentration of illness. The disease disproportionately hits racialized people, as a research team from Western University has shown: “Black and immigrant communities in Canada are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”
Perhaps realizing that their rent can’t be paid in T-shirts and that “hero” can also be spelled “cannon fodder,” workers and their advocates are fighting back. They’re thinking about new ways to shape the future. In France, a union representing Amazon workers took the corporation to court, and negotiated a settlement outside of it that included permanent pay raises and increased safety provisions.
In Canada, where the crisis has disproportionately affected women in terms of health and job loss, activists are looking at ways to shape a “shecovery” that promotes vital, sustainable and permanent goals such as universal child and elder care. As economist Armine Yalnizyan said recently on TVO’s The Agenda, “There’s no recovery without a shecovery, and no shecovery without child care.”
It’s women who are “driving change,” according to three academics who just wrote a stirring manifesto about reshaping the future of economic systems by putting workers at the heart of decision-making. “Working humans are so much more than resources,” begins the text, which was written by Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Meda and Julie Battilana, and endorsed by more than 3,000 academic researchers.
The principles they set out are simple: workers, who they call “labour investors,” should have much more input into the running of the companies that employ them; meaningful employment should be considered a right and not merely a means to a profitable end; and any aid given by governments to bail out corporations should be conditional on environmental sustainability practices and internal governance overhauls. As they write, “market mechanisms alone cannot be left in charge of the choices that affect our communities most deeply.”
The reckoning we need involves a change to systems, so that people are not beholden to fickle spurts of generosity for their livelihoods. Some workers have been on the front lines all along, caring for people, driving buses and trucks, delivering packages and pad thai, stocking shelves. Others will be asked to go back to work shortly, to cut hair and serve ice cream and pick produce. Many of them may be glad for the work, while others worry, quite reasonably, for their personal safety.
Is it useful to call them heroes? It’s just a word, easy and cheap to say. What they might like instead is an actual reward, in the form of stability and autonomy – and a pay hike that’s not going to disappear.
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